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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has informed the American public of results from initial testing of drinking water onboard 158 randomly selected passenger airplanes.
The EPA suggested passengers with compromised immune systems -- usually the elderly, very young or those who are sick -- not wash with water from the tap or drink beverages that are brewed or mixed on flights, like coffee or tea.
Preliminary data released by EPA Monday shows that in the recent tests, 12.6 percent of domestic and international passenger aircraft tested in the U.S. carried water that did not meet EPA standards.
As part of its enforcement activities over the past two months, EPA randomly tested the water supplies on 158 aircraft. Aircraft tank water is used in the galleys and lavatory sinks.
Initial testing of onboard water supply revealed 20 aircraft with positive results for total coliform bacteria; two of these aircraft (1.3 percent) also tested positive for E.coli. Both total coliform and E.coli are indicators that other disease-causing organisms (pathogens) may be present in the water and could potentially affect public health.
When sampling identified total coliform in the water, the aircraft was retested. In repeat testing on 11 aircraft, the Agency confirmed that water from eight of the aircraft tested still did not meet EPA's water quality standards.
A significant part of aircraft travel includes international flights. According to the Air Transport Association (ATA), about 90 percent of ATA member aircraft have the potential to travel internationally. These aircraft may board water from foreign sources that are not subject to EPA drinking water standards.
"EPA is committed to keeping the American public well informed of further testing and actions taken, reviewing existing guidance to determine areas where it might be strengthened, concluding water quality protection agreements with the airlines and taking enforcement actions where warranted," according to a statement released yesterday by EPA.
"We believe the information released today will help the traveling public make informed decisions," the statement continued. "Passengers with compromised immune systems or others concerned may want to request canned or bottled beverages. EPA will update its information and advice to the traveling public as soon as new information is available."
EPA is working closely with ATA on agreements regarding steps the airlines will take to ensure acceptable drinking water quality. The agency is also discussing how airlines would provide the necessary additional testing to determine the nature and extent of the problem.
"If the parties are unable to reach an agreement or agreements promptly, EPA will exercise its enforcement authorities to achieve these goals. EPA anticipates an agreement with U.S. airlines shortly," the agency stated.
In response to the aircraft test results, EPA has accelerated its priority review of existing regulations and guidance. The agency is placing specific emphasis on preventive measures, adequate monitoring, and sound maintenance practices such as flushing and disinfection of aircraft water systems.